The Anglian Helmet from Coppergate


list of authors
Dominic Tweddle
list of contributors
J. Bayley
P. T. Craddo
G. D. Gaunt
A. R. Hall
R. A. Hall
J. Hillam
A. K. G. Jones
J. Jones
H. K. Kenward
H. K. Kenward
J. Lang
C. Lavell
J. G. McDonnell
I. M. McIntyre
C. A. Morris
H. M. Newey
W. A. Oddy
S. A. O'Connor
T. P. O'Connor
E. Okasha
N. F. Pearson
Is Part Of
The Archaeology of York [Series]
The Small Finds [Volume]
Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust
Date Copyrighted
Date Available
Digitally available on 16 June 2023
The Coppergate helmet was discovered in April 1982 during construction work in the area of the long-running excavations at 16–22 Coppergate, York. It was struck by a mechanical excavator which caused extensive damage to one side of the object. The helmet lay face down in the corner of the bottom of a wood-lined pit, the upper part of which had been removed by building works in the 19th century. The pit also contained a sword-beater, a churn dasher, a crucible fragment, an antler beam, a rubbing stone, and fragments of fuel ash slag and glass. Radiocarbon dates suggest that the pit was of mid to late Anglian date, and there is a dendrochronological date of after 586 for the felling of one of the timbers of the lining. Environmental analysis of the fill, however, has produced insect assemblages and dye plant fragments more characteristic of the Anglo-Scandinavian period. It is suggested that the pit was a shallow well which was backfilled in a single operation in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. This would also explain the heterogeneous nature of the objects in the pit.

The helmet probably reached the pit before this backfilling took place. The evidence from the corrosion products suggests that it was deposited crown down, and only later moved to lie almost face down, probably when the backfilling took place.

The helmet was lifted from the pit with its contents intact. It was excavated in the laboratory with the aid of both conventional and computer-aided tomography, the first application of this technique to an archaeological object. Inside the cap of the helmet was discovered iron mail, which had originally protected the neck, and a cheek-piece. Further detailed X-radiography was undertaken in order to assist the process of conservation at the York Archaeological Trust's own laboratories. Subsequently the helmet was reconstructed at the British Museum.

The helmet consists of four major elements, a cap, two cheek-pieces and a curtain of mail protecting the back of the neck. The iron cap is made up of a brow band almost encircling the head, a nose-to-nape band which is extended at the front to form a nasal, two lateral bands running down from the crown of the head towards each ear, and four infill plates. It is decorated in brass with a U-shaped binding edging the nasal and eyeholes. On the nasal is a cast plate decorated with a pair of confronted, interlocked animals with their hindquarters running off into interlace. This is cast in one piece with hatched eyebrows ending in animal heads. There is an animal head viewed from above between the eyebrows forming the end of the crest of the helmet. This is made up of a foil with an inscription which can be translated 'In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit (and) God; and to (or with) all we say Amen. Oshere'. This is flanked by hatched bindings which terminate at the back of the helmet in confronted animal heads. Running from ear to ear is a second almost identical inscription with only a few letters missing where the two inscriptions meet, and the left-hand element reversed. Behind the iron hinges from which the cheek-pieces are suspended are U-shaped brass bindings, and around the rear of the helmet is a slotted binding from which the mail was suspended by way of a row of copper alloy rings. This was held in place by silver rivets, the only precious metal on the helmet. The cheek-pieces are edged with U-shaped brass bindings, and along the rear edge of each is a row of loops which engaged with the mail. The mail is made up of almost 2000 rings, with alternate rows lapped and riveted, and welded. One ring at the top of the mail and three at the bottom are of copper alloy and the rest are of iron wire.

There is clear evidence of use on the helmet including a blow to the front left of the cap and a cut on the left side of the nasal. There is also evidence of repair to the mail and to the loops attaching it to the cheek-pieces. There is considerable wear on much of the brass decoration. The mail and right cheek-piece had been deliberately removed before deposition, and the left half of the mail suspension strip had been lost. Very little further damage took place in the ground, apart from severe corrosion to the rear left of the brow band. This area of corrosion may have shattered when the mechanical excavator struck the helmet.

The evidence for partial dismantling of the helmet before deposition, combined with the fact that the mail was carefully folded and placed with the removed cheek-piece inside the helmet, points to a deliberate deposition with the intent to recover the object.

The method and order of construction of the helmet is elucidated as well as the history and technological development of mail armour. Of major importance is the evidence for a range of metal punches used to make the inscriptions, and the fine network of lines on the nasal. These are interpreted as the laying out lines for the decoration of the original model for the nasal, from which the mould for casting it was made.

The helmet belongs to the group of crested helmets current both in England and Scandinavia. These ultimately derived from Constantinian guard helmets, and went on in use down to the opening years of the 11th century, when they were replaced by helmets of a pointed form. The Coppergate helmet does not closely resemble any other surviving helmet, although there are clear familial traits, such as the sectional construction of the cap and the type and deployment of the decoration on the face. Perhaps it can best be seen as lying between the helmets of the pagan Anglo-Saxon period and Vendel period, and those of the Viking Age.

This dating is supported by the art-historical parallels for the decoration. These point to Northumbria as the place of manufacture for the helmet, a conclusion supported by the use of Northumbrian display script for the inscriptions. A date of c.750–75 is advanced for the helmet. This dating is based primarily upon the occurrence on the nasal of animals running off into interlace, a form only introduced to Anglo-Saxon art in the mid 8th century, combined with the lavish use of spirals. These were falling out of use in Anglo-Saxon art towards the end of the 8th century. Such a dating places the helmet squarely in the period of Alcuin, arguably the high point of Northumbrian cultural life, although a period also of great political instability.
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York Archaeological Trust
CC BY 4.0
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